Amid an ongoing scandal over jailhouse informants, Orange County supervisors are considering an expansion of their law enforcement review office to cover other county departments beyond the Sheriff’s Department.
The informants scandal – which has included misuse of informants, withholding of key evidence, alleged perjury by law enforcement, and convicted criminals being released early due to the botching of their cases – has rocked the county’s criminal justice system and led to calls for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office.
County Supervisors have complained that Steve Connolly, who heads the county's Office of Independent Review (OIR), didn't keep them adequately informed about what was going on with the informants scandal since it came to light last year.
Over the past few months, two supervisors – Todd Spitzer and Andrew Do – have been working with law enforcement oversight expert Michael Gennaco on ideas for how to boost the effectiveness of the OIR, which is tasked with monitoring the Sheriff’s Department. They also plan on letting Connolly go at the end of the year.
At an ad-hoc committee meeting Monday, Gennaco presented an update to both supervisors about ideas for strengthening the oversight model, such as adding resources to audit sheriff’s investigations and practices and bringing in law students and volunteers as daily jail monitors.
“Things have been happening in this county behind the scenes for a long, long time that have great import, and then eventual ramification” to the supervisors, Spitzer said.
A good deal of focus Monday was on the idea of broadening the review office’s scope to other departments, including the DA's office – which along with the Sheriff’s Department is at the center of the jailhouse informants scandal. Others include the Probation Department, Public Defender’s office, and Child Protective Services.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is a “big proponent of opening this review countywide” to the entire criminal justice system, said Undersheriff John Scott, who represented Hutchens at Monday's meeting.
Executives from each department being considered for extra scrutiny attended Monday’s meeting to answer questions from supervisors, except for the DA's office. Later, DA spokeswoman Roxi Fyad declined to say why Rackauckas didn’t send a representative or what the office thought about the expanded oversight proposal.
The sheriff’s department, meanwhile, seemed to welcome additional scrutiny.
Scott said he believed Hutchens would be comfortable with having the outside office audit her department’s processes, including hiring practices, background investigations, and issuing of concealed gun permits.
That is, as long as the outside reviewers are bound by attorney-client privilege, which means they could share what they find with supervisors in closed session, but not publicly. Officials repeatedly said such a restriction is legally required in order for an outside person to gain access to confidential personnel and investigation files.
Scott also supported having those reviews take place even in areas when no specific problems have been found, which he described as being “proactive.”
“I think doing [audits] in advance is a better way of doing business,” said Scott, who recently served as interim sheriff in Los Angeles County after the prior Sheriff Lee Baca abruptly stepped down amid a jail beatings scandal.
Scott said his experience last year in LA County taught him that there has to be somebody "looking continually" at department operations.
“Ultimately there was abuse in the jail," Scott said. "So yes, I think it could happen here if we didn't have sufficient oversight and people that are responsible being accountable for their actions.”
That stood in contrast to Public Defender Frank Ospino, who argued passionately that his office is running well and without any scandals.
Ospino also found it strange that his staff would be targeted for greater scrutiny when they were the ones who revealed the law enforcement wrongdoing that prompted the oversight debate. “I’m not aware of any major instances where there has been any public defender misconduct” or “any lawsuit” pending against his office, he said.
Spitzer heaped praise on the Public Defender's staff for exposing the informants scandal, but said supervisors still had an interest in preventing lawsuits that could cost the county substantial sums of money. Do agreed.
“We’re not limited to just reacting to things that already happened,” Do said.
Ospino also argued that legal ethics prevent his office from sharing clients’ case files with outside reviewers. But Gennaco said systemic issues could be looked at without intruding on attorney-client concerns.
Mike Ryan, the county’s social services director, said he’s not opposed to having Child Protective Services be subject to independent review. But he wants to avoid “redundancies” and ensure that children’s confidentiality is protected.
Spitzer, meanwhile, pointed out that supervisors get “dragged into” cases that result in lawsuits against the county but for which supervisors are limited in the independent info they can get.
In one case, he said, an emergency room doctor came to a different opinion about child sex abuse allegations than a county social worker.
“We didn’t have a mechanism as a board [to say]…wait a minute, somebody needs to go talk to that doctor” and have a professional who works for supervisors figure out “what the heck’s going on,” Spitzer said.
Another hearing on oversight changes will likely take place on Nov. 9, according to Spitzer.